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If you’re living with bipolar disorder, a support group can help provide strength and comfort.
Are you struggling with bipolar disorder – either for yourself, or for a loved one? Connecting directly with others who are dealing with the same emotions and life experiences can be a great source of comfort and strength. For Ingrid Deetz, director of chapter relations for the national Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), that’s the single most important reason to join a bipolar support group. “Just knowing you’re not the only one who’s going through something can be a big help,” she says.
“There’s ‘group wisdom’ that’s just invaluable, and you can’t get it anywhere else,” agrees New Mexico-based clinical psychologist Joyce Burland, Ph.D., national director of the Education, Training, and Peer Support Center at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “Bipolar disorder, like other mental illnesses, can just kick you out of your own life, and you have to find a way toward it again,” says Dr. Burland, who also speaks from the perspective of having close family members with mental illness.
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Bipolar Support Group Meetings: What to Expect
Ideally, bipolar support meetings are intimate gatherings of no more than 15 people. Many groups are run by volunteers, but may also include trained facilitators who guide each meeting.
Although each person’s experience is different, you may find that a bipolar support group can help you by:
Teaching you how to stick to your treatment plan (if you have bipolar disorder). Participants in the NAMI Peer-to-Peer program, for instance, go through a nine-week program that incorporates elements of support while providing practical information about dealing with your mental illness. Participants learn specifically about how to prepare and use a relapse prevention plan. This document can alert you and others to feelings and behaviors that signal a possible impending relapse; it also details what needs to be done, and by whom, to intervene successfully.
Inspiring you. According to Deetz, group sessions aren’t “pity parties,” but rather, “places where you can get concrete ideas of how to improve your wellness.” Those who attend Peer-to-Peer see “two people with mental illness leading the class; they model how far you can come, away from demoralization. They talk about their own relapse plans, and the participants learn, ‘I can get through this, too,'” says Burland.
Creating an emotionally safe environment. “Our guidelines make it clear that it’s everyone’s job, not just the facilitator’s, to keep away from judging and criticizing,” Deetz says.
Providing information about services and resources available in the community. “Since members will likely be seeing many different health-care professionals, they have access to information from various sources,” Deetz notes.
If you’ve never attended a bipolar support group before, chances are you may not feel quite comfortable at your first meeting. Deetz advises, “Give it time and go to three or four sessions before you decide for sure whether to continue.”
Finding a Group: Options
More than 1,000 support groups are affiliated with DBSA chapters nationwide, and through its Connection program, NAMI offers weekly 90-minute groups throughout the country for people living with mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder. More information is available at the National Alliance on Mental Illness Web site (click “Find support,” then “Education, Training and Peer Support Center”) and at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance Web site (click “Find support”).
If you’re hesitant about attending an in-person bipolar disorder support group, or if none exists in your area, online bipolar support groups with live chats and message boards are another option. “I think it’s a little more difficult to ‘feel’ the support in an online group, but they can work well, and they offer anonymity for those who live in small towns or who, because of their professions, don’t want to be identified,” says Deetz. For those run by DBSA, go to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance Web site, click on Find Support, then Online Support Group or Discussion Board.
Whether in person or online, allow yourself to benefit from a supportive community, urges Burland, “because it can truly help restore your sense of hope and your sense of prospect for the future. When you develop a mental illness,” she says with compassion, “those are things that you often feel are eradicated.”